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Who Wants to Be a Poet Laureate?
Other than the public scrutiny, the low pay, the political minefields and the constant distraction, it's a swell job.
by Colleen O'Brien on Nov 08, 2004
You would think being named poet laureate is like receiving the MVP Award -- Most Vaunted Poet -- or being crowned the King or Queen of Letters: an unquestionable honor, a career's pinnacle. But ask any recent poet laureate at any level, and it becomes clear that the title, with its public demands, privacy invasions and political pressures can be as much curse as blessing.
The national laureate, a position at the Library of Congress since 1937, is charged with raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." No, the laureate won't run for re-election, but she will enter the public spotlight and be drawn into civic life. At the national level, selection depends primarily on the poet's work, but also on varying voice style, gender and region of the country, according to Prosser Gifford, the director of Scholarly Programs at the Library of Congress. Laureates must be exceptional poets as well as good representatives.
However, having one's name mentioned in the same breath as Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Gwendolyn Brooks, to name a few, is not necessarily a grand motivation. U.C. Berkeley professor Robert Hass (pictured above, left), United States Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997, said he thought about turning down the offer. "I had been to Washington, and I saw what the deal was, what the bureaucratic responsibilities were, and it didn't seem like a big honor," Hass says.
With kids in college, he couldn't live on the $30,000 annual stipend (it's now $35,000), so he continued teaching at Berkeley and commuted to Washington to fulfill his responsibilities as laureate. Respecting the poet's need to work, the Library of Congress keeps the responsibilities to one annual lecture and reading at the Library, plus some work in organizing the Library's annual literary series. Hass also created a conference on nature writing and a syndicated Washington Post column on poetry.
Hass also accepted offers to speak publicly in order to address the condition of literacy in America. "It was a tremendous education," he said. "But it got to be like giving a stump speech. I felt like I'd lost my way and needed to get back to writing."
The nation's current poet laureate, Louise Gluck (above, right), has seemingly avoided that problem by not granting interviews and generally shying from the spotlight. (Our interview requests were turned down by her agent.)
Even a local laureate can be stretched thin. Devorah Major (above, center), San Francisco's official poet whose two-year term ends this month, is ready to get back to her own work. "It definitely cuts into the writing time," she says. "Wonderful as it has been, I'll gladly pass my crown on."
As San Francisco's laureate, Major put together a community poetry project called City Reflections: War and Peace on Our Streets. Each month she selected a few poems submitted by children, teenagers, adults and working poets, and ran them in the San Francisco Chronicle and on the San Francisco Public Library's Web site. The selection process demanded at least 40 hours a month and broke her $5,000 stipend down to about $5 an hour (she earns her living teaching and performing). "I haven't been writing as much, and I haven't been writing as much of my heart."
Major, who succeeded Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Janice Mirikitani in the position, has struggled to keep poetry and politics separate. Another writer "took issue" with her use of the Chronicle as the forum for City Reflections after the paper fired a reporter for attending a war protest. And some of her friends were "outraged" when she refused to use her poetry to campaign for mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez. "I thought he'd be wonderful," she said. "But I don't use my poetry in that way."
Inconvenience and distraction are mere annoyances compared to the state of California's first official foray into poetic coronation. Since 1919, the state has had unofficial laureates but no one to claim the official mantle. In 2001, then-Governor Gray Davis created a statewide position and limited the term to two years; Quincy Troupe was his first appointee. The coronation turned into a virtual beheading. A routine Senate check of Troupe's resume revealed that he had lied about his college degree. He not only resigned from the laureateship but also from his tenured professorship at the University of California, San Diego.
With a new governor and a state Arts Council that has lost nearly all its funding, don't expect another California laureate soon. Given what most laureates say about their experiences at their posts, don't expect a deluge of applications, either.
by Colleen O'Brien on Nov 08, 2004